The excerpts below are from STRANGE AND STRANGER – THE WORLD OF STEVE DITKO – written by Blake Bell and published by Phantagraphics Books, 2008.
“Instrumental to the success of The Amazing Spider-Man over the past 45 years was Ditko’s initial insistence that the strip be grounded in the civilian life of Peter Parker. Ditko battled to maintain this element during his tenure, believing Peter must have matching ‘screen time’ with the costumed hero to resonate beyond comics’ prepubescent demographic”.
“The ideological difference lay in Ditko’s desire to bring Spider-Man down to street level, on par with the reader and normal human beings.” (…) “Ditko also fended off Lee’s attempts to corrupt the strip’s integrity with the introduction of too many far-reaching elements of the ‘fantastic’ that would be incongruous in a strip about a plausible teenager.”
“’I preferred that we have Peter Parker/Spider-Man ideas grounded more in a teenager’s credible world’, says Ditko.
“But before Ditko could convince Stan to stay away from similar fantastical elements, in issue two Lee introduced space aliens into Spider-Man’s world for the story of the Terrible Tinkerer. Twelve issues later, Ditko finally put his foot down with the introduction of the Green Goblin (in issue #14 – July 1964). Lee wanted a movie crew to find an Egyptian-like sarcophagus containing an ancient, mythological demon that would be released and come to life. ‘I rejected Stan’s idea,’ says Ditko. ‘A mythological demon made the whole Peter Parker/Spider-Man world a place where nothing is metaphysically impossible.”
Hold that thought and fast forward to THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #2 – Dec. 1964:
And in its very first page…
From the aforementioned statements and the panel above, it’s easy to conclude that if Peter Parker’s greatest tragedy originated from a street-level act of violence, his motivation to unleash his guilt could only be aimed back at the same arena. In simple terms, Spider-Man fights crime. So it’s conceivable that soon enough, antagonist forces would escalate to his level, and not stray from it. That was the rule, until the comic above was published, and Steve Ditko was still building the Spider-Man template into which many comic book professionals and historians today regard as the character’s Bible.
It’s important to stress the fact that, before the second coming of the superhero mythology in comic book history – The Marvel Age of Comics -, Steve Ditko had already established himself as a high caliber comic book artist, due to his ability to masterfully convey graphic horror, science fiction, suspense, western and even romance. The craft, style, camerawork, pace, characterization and panoramic movement from some panels are crudely flawless, and they still hold to today’s standards. Few comic book creators in the medium’s history have expanded its potential like him. His prolific work has been published in The Steve Ditko Archives (Fantagraphics) – a mandatory reading for any Spider-reader who wish to experience this creator’s mindscape.
Imagine (yourself as) a reader back then, already accustomed to stories featuring Spidey fighting crime and super-villains, and caught off guard with a story in which the least expected person to enter the realm of magic and supernatural becomes its very protagonist.
As a great movie without a trailer, the issue’s cover wouldn’t reveal any detail of the story, besides the title: “The Wondrous World of Dr. Strange!” – with just Spider-Man standing on its right side, striking the pose that would be featured in the upper left corner of every ASM issue for the next years. One can only wonder if the cover was conceived as pin-up, or when another cover was not made in time. Either way, it worked, because the illustration forces the reader to pick the issue up and peek inside.
Enter Doctor Strange, a character created by Ditko to act in the opposite spectrum of Spider-Man’s reality, in order to situate the reader through the unknown adventure, filled with original concepts, later to be applied everywhere in the Marvelverse.
It’s a simple story: Spider-Man is bored; there’s nothing happening during his night patrol. Elsewhere, a man named Xandu hypnotizes two brawlers in a bar to be his servants, as the next step to acquire a magic object of great power. He concedes them a numbness state, the ability to feel no pain and great strength. Xandu wishes to steal the other half of the Wand of Watoomb, in which the other half is already in his possession; the missing half lies at Dr. Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Xandu sends their dumb brutes over and they render Strange unconscious. When they find the missing part, Spider-Man intervenes, but he goes down due to his oponents’ supernatural strength. Before they flee, he throws Spider-Tracer on one of them.
With half of the wand, Xandu puts them together and its power create doorways to other dimensions. Spider-Man shows up, but Xandu is fast – he sends him to another dimension; Spider-Man is faster snatches the Wand of Watoomb before vanishing. Dr Strange comes to and tracks Xandu’s henchmen to his lair.
The sorcerers engage in battle and Spider-Man is sent back to Earth. As Xandu regains control of the Wand and unleashes its power against Strange, but not before using his astral form to leave his body and change the game. He instructs Spider-Man to use electricity to break Xandu’s influence over his henchmen; they end up fighting together against the dark sorcerer. Spider-Man uses his web to get the Wand from Xandu’s grasp, and Strange delivers the final spell: he wipes their antagonist memory, so he can never recalls his cruel intentions to attempt dark evil deeds. Ever.
As much as this unprecedent adventure seems simple now, its pattern can’t be overstated, because that’s the one which inadvertently (or not) open a new path of how Spider-Man and his powers would be perceived in the decades to come, and all it needed was a push from Doctor Strange to make it happen.
By comparison, it would be just like being a Beatles’ fan, also in the early sixties; if one was used to listen to romantic and fast-paced rock songs from the band, try to imagine the impact by listening to Revolver for the first time. And just like Rock and Roll, Spider-Man proved to be a character adaptable to extremes.
ASM Annual #2 shifted a new gear and opened a new door of possibilities in Spider-Man’s history: it marked Spidey’s first encounter with the Sorcerer Supreme, establishing Marvel’s cohesive expansion among its titles, besides being a plot milestone to subsequent Spidey/Dr. Strange team-ups in the years to come. Supernatural dimensions. Magic. Sorcery. Proving that, if Ditko giveth, then only Ditko could taketh away.
By style, he and Kirby were universes apart; but by boldness and exercise of creation, they strived and stood together. The Marvel Universe then, was the place where everything and anything could be imagined and seen.
The next time Spider-Man would chronologically cross paths with Dr. Strange in his own ASM title would be eight years later, through a story published in ASM #108-109, considered by John Romita himself, one of his greatest achievements. His incredible art style brings a noir cinematic feel with great depth and pacing. There isn’t much of otherworldly panels (if any), though the mystical atmosphere in the story is a constant.
With Lee and Romita at the peak of their collaboration in the title, the subplot intertwines with the main plot, and supporting characters evolve: Flash Thompson must come to terms with the consequences of his actions in Vietnam and ends up kidnapped; Gwen Stacy is tired of seeing her boyfriend escaping whenever danger strikes and forces Peter to stay beside her, so he’s restrained, unable to save Spider-Man’s biggest fan. He then concocts a faux abduction for Gwen to see it (the same employed in ASM #46) to protect his secret identity and fly to rescue. Soon he is summoned by Doctor Strange in his astral form, offering his help and mystical knowledge to save the day while Spider-Man fights the brutal and physical antagonist – again. Still, the story works in all of its elements by the use of flashbacks and the visual depiction of the Vietnam War.
It’s worth noticing that John Romita’s style also refined Spider-Man’s iconic visual; his expertise with romance comics conveyed more visual believability to the ASM title, making everyone looked good – hence the better appeal of the comic.
Whereas Ditko’s style did anything but to expand the manner how visual notions beyond reality could be made possible within Doctor Strange’s pages, and yet make the ASM title look somehow more crude, gritty and visually unique.
Blake Bell reinforces the invitation:
“If Spider-Man set a new standard for superhero comics in narrative depth, Dr. Strange raised the bar for the visualization of dimensions never before seen or imagined.”
It is a well-known fact amongst comic book readers that their favorite superhero (alone or in groups) eventually clashed with supernatural enemies, in which the common explanation for them would be simply “magic” or the ability to summon it. Whenever it happened, the application of such magic to the story would have to be subtle – in order not to extrapolate the very boundaries where the superhero acts. But every now and then, they do.
Also, it’s natural for any comic book writer/artist to resort in such sources to provide a wider scope of adventures and give us the hero’s perspective of it to guide us during the journey; sometimes, just for the fun of it (or the lack thereof, once the story was read).
The X-Men even battled Dracula and other vampires before; Moon Knight and Batman have their share and experience with the unnatural and mystic.
There are well-succeeded examples such as the Elektra Saga in the Daredevil title under the trace and words of Frank Miller: how The Hand organization resourced to dark ancient magic to revive their warriors, and how Elektra comes back to life (for the first time) through the sheer power of Love from Matt Murdock (issue #190, vol.1). There’s the unfortunate Punisher – Purgatory (Marvel Knights 1999) mini-series, which Frank Castle comes back from the dead, possessing power given by heavens and to perpetuate their work, still killing criminals. It simply doesn’t contextualize with the essence of the character.
And let’s just ignore the whole Frankencastle storyline.
In this context, Spider-Man reigns as one of the most flexible and approachable characters to infuse such kind of stories – as Steve Ditko himself allowed him to in the beginning -, so not too often the hero would come across the supernatural and/or mystical adventures. Whenever he did though, “the magic/unnatural element” would be restricted to his antagonist or ally, remaining shallowly explained to Spider-Man (and the reader) in order to keep the aura of mystery and fascination for the story. He’s not Doctor Strange. Because after all, Peter Parker’s eyes are also the readers’.
Therein lies the unique beauty of this superhero since its inception: a teenager character, embedded with spider-like powers and an overbearing guilt, dealing with real life problems and yet, having to confront evil in its many forms and always being considered as such by the society he altruistically tries to serve. It’s paradoxical; by definition, it was not supposed to work, but it does. In fact, it worked so well, that such story concept paramounted the Spider-Man template the whole world knows.
In plain terms, this template of strange and otherworldly stories inspired others; some of them have been picked for this text due to their importance of how things can be done well or bad – from plot, art, and fun reading level.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #68-75 (1963) / “SPIDER-MAN: LIFELINE” #1-3 (2001):
The Lifeline Tablet saga, published in ASM #68-75 will always be regarded as one of the most epic storylines conceived by Lee and Romita.
Maggia leader Silvermane, relentlessly seeking power and control reaches for the impossible: the secret of Lifeline Tablet – decoded in it, there’s a formula to unveil the secret of immortality, by de-aging the one who deciphers it.
The tablet is first stolen by the Kingpin from ESU; as Spider-Man takes it back and delivers it to George Stacy. The public view on the hero is all the rage, thanks to JJJ; Peter has to deal with Gwen accusing him of being a coward.
The Tablet is again stolen by Silvermane who kidnaps Curt Connors and forces him to work on the Tablet’s secrets, while Spidey must confront the Shocker, Quicksilver, his classmates’ judgement, Gwen’s disappointment and public opinion.
Now, this is classic superhero comic book reading: a crime story from the start, filled with drama, action, misunderstanding, suspense, surprises, violence, great dialogue, perfect sequential art, leading to an epic and astonishing ending.
Everything else you could expect from Lee and Romita, delivering Marvel extravaganza at its best.
The story garnered such admiration for its plot and execution that it inevitably led to a sequel – Spider-Man: Lifeline whose sole merit of publication lies as a homage to the original saga and Steve Rude‘s fantastic art to honor John Romita’s. It is written by Fabian Nicieza – famous for his work with the X-Men. This sequel digs deeper in Tablet’s origins, displaying flashbacks with Namor and the history of Atlantis and Lemuria – where secrets such as the Tablet were hidden deep.
Doctor Strange is in this time to elucidate the artifact’s history with flashbacks – showing Namor and his Atlantean kingdom. Also starring: Arthur Stacy (brother of the late George, father of the late Gwen Stacy), Hammerhead, Boomerang and Doctor Curt Connors – who once again is forced to work on the Tablet because his family held hostage. The plot repeats itself.
Hammerhead’s motivation is his willingness to help a sick child in the hospital; something unseen until then, due to his famous brutality. As if this story-crutch was not enough, he also drinks from the formula originated from the Tablet, and turns himself into a demigod, who cures Connors (until the next Lizard story) and unturns himself to his human state.
An equivalent idea would be turning Sabretooth/Victor Creed into a Celestial. For the sake of avoiding further disappointments and not offending any reader’s intelligence, the events involving the sick kid and Spider-Man will not be told; seriously. All one needs to know is that Doctor Strange keeps the Lemurian Tablet in the end.
The original Lifeline Tablet saga is a storyline in which all the elements, despite how different they are, converge perfectly to its conclusion.
For this Lifeline limited series, Fabian Nicieza – specialized for his long plot threads of retrocontinuity in the X-Men -, tries to do the same with Spider-man. The sheer existence of this mini-series exemplifies a symptom that Marvel was fighting without focusing in the disease by the end of the 20th century: The Marvel characters have a continuous history of existence, mostly, Spider-Man. By the nineties, the old formula began to present problems. Most of the titles were folding on themselves by the constant regurgitation of old stories and the overusage of retrocontinuity. Such gimmick worked for the X-Men due to the very nature of their characters – being created and infused into the X-verse without explanations and shrouded in secrecy – some of them, coming from the future. Claremont and Byrne’s Days of Future past explored well that idea, while Story-wise, it’s a fertile territory to be explored, because if Wolverine was this constant source of secrets, the same rule could be applied to the rest mutant scenario and its continuity.
Since nothing was sacred in the turn of the century, the past is used to dominate the present, and superhero comic book storytelling wasn’t immune to it. A mistake made by Bob Harras (as E-i-C) during the nineties that nearly led the company to bankruptcy, because not all the characters could function under the same editorial direction.
Spider-Man and The Clone Saga, for instance, though regarded as a commercial success, it still is critically regarded as a strenuous plot applied in the character’s history. Even the creation of Arthur Stacy (also present in Lifeline) and his sons, harkened to the old plot gimmick of keeping the interest in the title (if not only in the supporting cast) alive.
Marvel’s strongest quality became its heaviest problem to deal with: the heavy reuse of its own cohesive continuity and of characters.
THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #14 (1980):
This excerpt from The Book of Vishanti alone taps for the first time one of the most intriguing aspects of Spider-Man’s nature: the existence of an ancient totemic power called “The Spider”. Whether it’s the essence of the spider being or another entity represented by it, it’s unknown; but its bearer (or herald) at this age is Peter Parker. And since Doctor Strange evokes many enchantments and spells from the Vishanti itself, one can only wonder if he already knows the kind of power that lies within Spider-Man. It is the sort of team-up that goes beyond mere coincidence – possibly a connection.
When Doom and Dormammu make a pact to unleash an ancient threat known as the Bend Sinister upon reality – Doom sends Lucius Dilby, a young scientific mind hired to build a machine capable of accessing Dormammu’s Dark Dimension, to learn from him. Combining magic and technology, Lucius creates a robot, capable of flying and projecting dark energy. creature mixing of both magic and technology.
Always the cunning strategist, Doom is quite aware that Strange might be the only one who could thwart his plans, so the robot is sent to his Sanctum Sanctorum and make him a prisoner as a sacrifice to enable the Bend Sinister come to pass. Still, the sorcerer sends out a mystical call for help, and it reaches Spider-Man; another proof of this possible connection between the characters.
Spider-Man battles living stone gargoyles, four-armed creatures in search for clues as to where Strange might be; the only available was one told by Wong – left by Strange himself: CBGB. Yes, the famous punk rock venue in New York; house to great bands in their beginning such as The Ramones, Blondie and Talking Heads. Once at the club, Peter watches the punk band Shrapnel playing live, whose real lead singer, Dave Wyndorf, was also known for being a huge comic book fan.
Once again, Rock and Roll proves itself to be a constant in the Spider-Man mythos.
Back to the story, the band members of Shrapnel start to lead the crowd, by chanting the Bend Sinister. As Spider-Man, he follows the crowd chanting and dancing in front of the Latverian embassy; Lucius Dilby announces his arrival at its top with Dr. Strange, held prisioner, bound to a big gem that embodies the Bend Sinister.
When Spider-Man tries to release Strange, the magical robot appears and engages attack. He overcomes the robot not by defeat, but by riding it using his webs and wits and crashes it into the gem, thus releasing Strange and ceasing the spell. Dilby is harkened back to Dormammu’s Dark Dimension and transformed into a nice paperweight for Dr. Doom as a reminder of their failure. Dr. Strange gives little explanation to Spidey as to what just happened and what the Bend Sinister is, but thank him anyway.
The tale is written by one of the industry’s most respectable writers and two of Ditko’s scholars – Denny O’Neil -, and drawn by one Frank Miller, while he was still igniting his run on the then bimonthly Daredevil and consolidating himself as a great storyteller. His art pays homage to Ditko’s style mixed with his own; the camera work is flawless, depicting wonderful light sources coming from above and below, thus showing how it would be to watch Spider-Man swinging, by putting the reader as an observer above him. Even the nine panel-grid is present in some pages – the same visual pattern present in every page in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen.
This is one of the best standalone team-up Spidey and Strange stories to date with great cinematographic action and concise plot.
Another one of Denny O’Neil’s greatest contributions to Spider-Man’s mythos is the introduction of Madame Web in ASM#210, whose clairvoyance added another layer of mystic connection between the hero and a higher unexplainable force.
“HOOKY” (Marvel Graphic Novel #22 – 1986):
In the eighties, superhero Graphic Novels (not comic book issues collected in trade paperbacks) were in all-time high. Through it, artists and writers could expand their talents beyond the standard comics’ continuity borders.
with this original GN, Spider-Man had his first successful incursion in the format, whereas in the story, he had another one into a different dimension, fighting alongside a two hundred year old sorcerer trapped inside a body of a twelve year old girl – named Marandi – who knows his secret identity. She asks for his help to fight against Tordenkakerlakk, a shapeshifting demon that becomes more powerful each time it’s defeated.
Doctor Strange is just mentioned in the story. Though this would be the perfect adventure suited for him, Marandi asks for Spidey’s help, not the sorcerer’s; which makes Spider-Man’s presence an invitation for the reader to once again share the perspective we would have and be amazed by it this world/dimension astonishingly painted by Berni Wrightson – Swamp Thing co-creator (with Len Wein) and master visual artist of horror.
And only by that, Hooky stands out for its interior art alone. Wrightson is unleashed in every panel – from the monsters’ designs, scenarios and texture; the colors are beautiful and the scale fits just right into the GN format.
However, the art compensates for the plot’s simplicity. It can be really enjoyable for any child who’s a Harry Potter fan, but easily forgettable for a mature reader. The writer, Susan K. Putney, is a sci-fi published author of the novel Against Arcturus; and Hooky remains as her only comic book venture published to date.
It’s not a canon story, but it’s worth for the great art and Peter’s ability to tackle into amateur psychology, learned from his own experience.
UNTOLD TALES OF SPIDER-MAN: “STRANGE ENCOUNTER” (1998):
Frank Miller’s Batman – Year One worked so well that DC Comics‘ editorial decided to move along with the idea, and released Legends of The Dark Knight – the Batman title that filled in the gap between his first appearance in the late thirties until Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams‘ hostile takeover of the Dark Knight during the seventies – in order to erase the damage to the comics made by the infamous Batman TV series from the sixties.
Year One and LoTDK used well the idea established by The X-Men’s Days of Future Past: retrocontinuity – an idea exploited to the extreme. During the nineties and the first years of the 21st century, every DC character had its Year Ones and Secret Origins mini-series. The eagerness to establish a continuity in which both new and old readers could relate through the years became so desperate, that their editorial decided to reboot their entire characters history (again!) with The New 52! – soon, the idea proved to be flawed and they decided to blame it all on Alan Moore’s Doctor Manhattan.
Now, Batman has a family and is about to get married; the Court of Owls has its roots in the Wayne Family and so on. Everything is being done to create a real lifeline for these characters – just like Spider-Man and most of Marvel characters. With Bendis joining DC’s ranks, his style will surely reinforce the company’s rebirth.
But that’s beyond the point; what matters is, in comparison, Marvel’s historical foundations are carved deep in continuity since the release of Fantastic Four #1. These foundations never faltered, allowing the possibility of further exploring the company’s continuity without damaging it. The extinct What If…? monthly series represented that well, followed by Jim Shooter’s New Universe (with Starbrand being its sole survivor), Tom DeFalco’s MC2 – with the release of Spider-Girl – until Joe Quesada and Bill Jemas’ Ultimate Universe.
Despite all of those ramifications and expansions, it is not difficult to track back any Marvel’s character’s history from the first time it was published.
And despite Marvel’s own missteps with their characters, the company’s history and continuity has never been entirely compromised to the point that an overall reboot was needed. Jonathan Hickman and Esad Ribic’s Secret Wars (with Doctor Strange playing a huge role in it) could be DC’s equivalent of Crisis on Infinite Earths, but it never had to rely on an absolute reboot to reshape an entire comic book universe. It was just a story which Doctor Doom became God; and both Spider-Men, Peter Parker and Miles Morales – from the Ultimate line – played big parts in it. There were retrocontinuity close calls such as Heroes Reborn and Captain America’s Secret Empire events; still the core and history of the one Marvelverse remained intact.
If there was ever retrocontinuity, it would be made with respect and consideration. And The Untold Tales of Spider-Man remains as Marvel’s most accomplished Spider-Man title of the nineties, and it teaches how proper retrocontinuity should be done without any interference to character’s core history. Kurt Busiek – the mastermind behind Marvels, Avengers, Iron Man and other succesful stories, is on a roll with the title; the great art is provided by Pat Oliffe. They do not try to “fill in the gaps” between the first ASM issues, but complement them – enriching the Ditko/Lee phase in the title. In Strange Encounter, he delivers a great adventure with the “Strange and Stranger” duo.
Neil Vokes‘ art for this issue resembles Bruce Timm’s style; his character design is so accurate in this story that Doctor Strange looks exactly like Ditko’s drawing in his first appearance; and that is not a coincidence. His style is all about simplicity.
For this issue Roger Stern writes under Busiek’s plot and he also deliver the goods.
The plot is simple: Mordo wants payback; a magical object with great power is involved, Spidey is caught in the middle, he teams-up with Strange, and both save the day. All the classic elements that integrate Spider-Man at his beginning are there: Betty Brant, Liz Allan, Flash Thompson, an aloof Aunt May, JJJ’s irascible emotional state, goons and magic.
Let it be clear that the story is not being sold short here; it is clear that Busiek doesn’t intend to reinvent the wheel. His intention, printed in UToSM issue, to pay respect to the original material.
Roger Stern emphasizes this feeling, delivering the final thought/line in the story by Doctor Strange, which makes every reader feel like they know these characters in their hearts:
“And I have found a most courageous ally in the Amazing Spider-Man. Brash and flippant he may be, but I sense in his young life a recent tragedy, perhaps greater even than my own. Whatever the truth may be, Spider-Man has a valiant spirit to match his astounding powers! Clearly, he has accepted the great responsibility that great power demands!”
SPIDER-MAN #17 (1991):
Way back in December 1977, in Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 – Vol 1, Spider-Man was one of pivotal characters who helped to save the Universe against Thanos. He fought alongside and against Marvel’s Big Guns. It was a big event, published in a series of monthly comics woven together to develop one big cohesive storyline, thanks to the legendary editor Archie Goodwin – Marvel’s E-i-C back then.
The whole saga is definitely worth reading – and that was years before the Infinity Gauntlet; before the Infinity Trilogy. The genius Jim Starlin was only warming up his muscles, and the comic book fandom could barely conceive the idea that Thanos and the Infinity Stones would take over the world in the form of Marvel live-action movies.
Still, an inside note: if you’re a superhero in the Marvelverse, some antagonist will always hold a grudge – even in the afterlife. And Thanos hadn’t forgotten his against Spider-Man.
Though it is a fill-in issue between the last Todd McFarlane story for the adjectiveless Spider-Man title and Erik Larsen‘s The Revenge of The Sinister Six next storyline for the next (six) issues, this story crafted by Ann Nocenti and Rick Leonardi, sends our hero to the great beyond without Dr. Strange’s knowledge. The tale doesn’t intend to make a definite life-turnover event for the Wall-crawler. It’s not a poignant story either, for its visual depiction of Peter’s soul literally leaving his body (in uniform, without the mask); in fact, it’s a rather peaceful transition for him.
After a miscalculated rescue attempt of two window washers hanging from a platform whose cables are about to rupture, the platform falls towards on a cooling tank full of freon on the roof of lower building below; Spider-Man manages to save the men, but as the platform hits the tank, he notices a mother and her daughter standing close to it. The tank explodes, and Spidey tries to use his own body to shield them from the Freon wave. As it all happens too fast, he only saves the mother, leaving him and the young girl to absorb the rest of it. Both their hearts stop. Spider-Man dies alongside an innocent girl.
This standalone tale by Nocenti and Leonardi offers a masterful insight Peter Parker’s soul, by showing the reader how Spider-Man would react when he dies. He thinks of Gwen. He sees mythological and religious symbols, at a place that could be intended to resemble Dante’s Purgatory. Peter refers to it as “religious junkyard” and muses about spirituality while walking this strange path.
Crossing to another plane, he meets the Mad Titan wielding the Infinity Gauntlet and standing beside the female embodiment of Death. They recognize each other immediately; Peter even tries to be respectful to the couple. But once the demigod provokes his sense of altruism and shows him what happened to the little girl who also perished in the accident, a trigger inside Peter is pulled. Thanos keeps pushing Peter’s thread even more, stressing his failure and the pointlessness of being a superhero.
He sees the dead girl, looking down at her own body and her mother blaming it all on Spider-Man, hating him for his failure. All Peter Wants is to force Thanos to release her from that realm. Even if he has to punch him in the face to do it. It’s the ultimate spiritual showdown of unlimited power vs. unmitigated responsibility.
His action is proven pointless against the Mad Titan who nearly destroyed reality once, but he just doesn’t give up; his sacrifice is not fulfilled if the girl is also dead. And yet, Thanos continues to provoke him – if the Titan is also known for his philosophy skills, Peter fights back on the same level, relying on what is morally right – and even his own personal motivation – to prove him wrong.
Surprised by his unwillingness to give up the fight, Death concedes him and the girl freedom from that place and send them back to the land of the living. He can’t recollect what happened, but the reader is left with a personal look of Spider-Man’s soul, not to mention the physical and philosophical debate on heroism.
It’s an intimate read – an analysis of spiritual and moral matters; (Ann) Nocenti delivers the goods as she did with Daredevil – when he confronts Blackheart (issue #254, vol.1) in a story penciled by John Romita Jr. with inks by Al Williamson. The tale itself has an eerie and poetical aspect to it: a catholic superhero dressed as the devil who ends up meeting a demon. And yet, it feels believable, to say the least, because this is the Marvel Universe and there are many fictional incarnations of good and evil.
And Peter Parker knows exactly how and where to draw the line between these concepts. It’s what defines him.
“TORMENT” – SPIDER-MAN #1-5 (1990):
Todd McFarlane is at the peak of his success. He is given an adjectiveless Spider-title and creative Carte Blanche to do whatever he wants with it. His visual rendering of the hero (and his webbing) ushered the coming of the nineties’ superhero style for Marvel.
It’s of public knowledge that Spawn has always been his oldest of his creations – the character’s connection to the supernatural has always been part of his creative inspiration. In a world overrun by crime, corruption and violence, the cursed character could be the direct response to act against these forces like no other superhero could.
The Marvelverse by then had already established the existence of forces beyond Good and Evil, and characters who embody them.
Calypso‘s first appearance dates back to 1980, in ASM #209; the issue is written by Denny O’Neil and drawn by Alan Weiss. Her motivation is simple: she fell for Kraven after his first confrontation with Spider-Man, the ultimate prey. But the hunter gave up on his quest to hunt him down; Kraven believes the obsession dishonored him. Calypso sees it as humiliation and taunts him to the point of making him resume his hunt. She wants Kraven restored to his full, proud glory. She pulls the strings from behind the curtain, doesn’t confront Spider-Man and neither lets herself be seen by him. The next time she would cross paths with the Arachknight, it would be on her terms – not that they would make any sense, though.
If Jim Salicrup – then Spider-Man group editor – had at least presented the reader a footnote on ASM#209, explaining Calypso’s motivation to capture and kill Spider-Man for what he has done to Kraven (at least in her eyes), that would have helped. Whether Salicrup was never aware of the comic, or McFarlane had unleashed freedom and simply decided not to be bothered with such detail, is unknown.
McFarlane’s choice of Calypso as the main anatagonist for his first writing endeavor, could seem as an original decision. Spider-Man’s rogues gallery is one of the best in superhero comics, and that could be a great opportunity to reckon her as an evil, mystical force. As we also live in age which any original story has the potential to leave us in awe whenever an unexplainable mystery is delivered, Torment could – could – be ahead of its time. Because not everything has to make sense; not everything has to be explained. Stanley Kubrick once stated that the more things are explained, the more they lose their meaning. With that being said, the execution could have been done better. And for all purposes, Torment is better absorbed once viewed as a horror story – but not in a Ditko manner. The plotline lacks conciseness and the story fails to deliver a thread for the reader to follow. Definitely, an exemplification of style over substance.
In defense of the author, here are McFarlane’s words on the matter, published in Tom DeFalco‘s book – Comics Creators in Spider-Man (2004):
“When the first Spider-Man story came out, I was at a bit of disadvantage. I was Todd, the neophyte writer, on a book that happened to have artwork by Todd, an experienced penciler and inker. It was interesting the way people couldn’t separate the writer, who was only ten seconds old, from the artist who was maybe seven or eight years old. They wanted the writing to be just as sophisticated as the artwork. It took me years to get to that level. I always thought my first writing job was the equivalent of my first penciling job, which sucked, but I eventually got better. Same thing with my writing. I kept working at it and eventually I improved.”
J.M. DeMatteis & Mike Zeck’s Kraven’s Last Hunt proves to be a huge influence to Torment; not only for Calypso’s relation to Kraven and her motivation to hunt him down, but for its narration. JMD never failed to deliver captions made to describe actions and insightful thoughts in order to ellaborate and enhance the impact of the action happening before the readers’ eyes. But McFarlane pushes the gimmick to limit, taking the ‘dark and gritty’ mood to a whole new level, exceeding the limits of melodrama. For instance:
“Evil blows in the darkened halls. Ancient spirits lend their souls to the unholy ritual. The power builds. The magic increases. Unnatural forces feeding upon its desire for another victim.” – This caption from issue #3 elucidates the supernatural/magic element, but it doesn’t compensate for the lack thereof, in the story.
As for the “RISE ABOVE IT ALL!” spreaded page motto, it showed extraordinary potential, but it didn’t stick; it bothered instead. The narration is so exaggerated, that interloping with Peter’s thoughts – also presented in captions. The comic doesn’t sound at all like your average Spider-Man comic – possibly a Doctor Strange’s – which it’s a shame, because the story oozes strangeness.
Even if Doctor Strange couldn’t be available at the time, Dr. Voodoo (of course) or Shaman from Alpha Flight (also Canadian, like McFarlane) could have been brought to shed some light in the magic order concept and provide the plot thread in which the reader could follow, just like the pattern established by Ditko. But unfortunately, they were not invited to the party.
And what has Calypso accomplished, besides a one great display of psychopathic power?
Again, one can only wonder how the conversation was between Salicrup and Mcfarlane – if there ever was one.
The protagonist and antagonist elements are far apart; and yet, are forced against each other, connected by almost nothing. Some plot threads could be resolved, such as “CNNR” letters found on the walls by every murder scene commited by the Lizard; if that thread were used to demonstrate (Curt) Connors’ struggle to mentally overcome the beast from within, it would have added a layer to the story, but it’s forgotten.
Another is Mary Jane’s attitude to counteract her uneasiness – to have fun. As if she barely evolved as a character since the Romita years. It might be her way to hide her worrying about Peter and remain in a state of denial, to become numb to it – as said by herself in a caption. There’s little use and evolution of character for her in the story. Her near mute presence in it shows what can exactly happen if a writer is unable to handle a married superhero.
If there ever was a sequel to clarify this plot, it would have been easier to absorb it; as there isn’t any, a handful of questions were left unanswered: What are these unnatural forces? What do they want besides innocent blood? What were their sacrifices for? Yes, Calypso is psychopath voodoo witch, but what is the purpose for The Spider totemic essence in her spell? If the reader grows impatient with such questions, so does the Spider.
Nothing seems cohesive: The constant drumbeat, the exhaustion, the panic. A silent killing Lizard. A poisoned Spider-Man. Those elements resulting in a severe fever and causes him massive hallucinations; he focus on Mary Jane to go past them.
The timeframe is uncertain due to the way story unfolds; perhaps it all happens whitin four hours or less. And that’s a five-parter storyline.
From a cinematic storytelling perspective, Torment is flawless. Every panel is unique due to perfect positioning of the camera. The intertwined captions are shown with the speed of thought and fall into each panel perfectly to provide the mental cut according to the art shown: Spider-Man fighting a mindless Lizard; Calypso’s ritual; Mary Jane at night trying to have fun. The constant “DOOM DOOM DOOM” provides the soundtrack and sound effects.
The hyper amount of inking lines to convey detail and velocity through movement is insane. Visually, the art in this story is superb. Todd McFarlane is a master in visual storytelling.
Torment attempts to be a horror movie starring Spider-Man, as if directed by a 17-year old David Lynch. Which makes a weird sense, since Voodoo and other forms of supernatural magic can’t be easily comprehended by the unschooled in Mystical arts.
So, if it’s the reader’s will, the whole torment is left opened to interpretations.
There is though, a huge psychological lesson to Peter Parker factor which can’t be ignored: in the first chapter, he confides in Mary Jane about his invincibility, allowing himself to brag and being overconfident due to his feats and battles – even against Thanos. No matter what, Spider-Man has always emerged as a winner from whatever battle. In Torment, he finishes this strange adventure brought down to his knees.
Perhaps that’s the story McFarlane wished to tell: a tale of survival in which Love was the sheer motivation for Peter to rise above it all and come back to MJ.
Just like Al Simmons did for Wanda.
ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN #70-71 (2005):
One of Ultimate Spider-Man greatest triumphs is how Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley’s work made the title so solid within the length of a few issues. By the time the series reached its 70th issue (with the same creative team) the life of young Peter Parker had already had so many turnovers and shifts that some might have thought the source of stories would eventually fade away.
By the Vishanti, how this outcry was wrong.
The character was not just being readapted like Chapter One (Marvel’s attempt to recreate DC’s Year One), but reshaped for a new generation of readers, surpassing John Byrne‘s take on Peter Parker.
Bendis’ skills to create tight plot lines and convey real dialogue mixed with Bagley’s visual pace, movement, action and expression skills made the title one of the most important comics of the 21st century. Both are masterful storytellers with great knowledge of Marvel’s history and are able to think outside the box. They helped to establish the “writing for trade” style and enhanced the cinematic storytelling format for the Ultimate line; if any story feels like it could be perfectly transposed to a feature film, that’s not a coincidence – it is supposed to be like one: the characters, elements and plots from the original comics were reinvented for the new line. The ninth art had evolved; and this time, Spider-Man was spearing the change of the format, and being way ahead of the curve.
If the storyline analyzed here were a real film it would be certainly named Nightmare on Bleecker Street – starring a superhero kid from Queens and American celebrities’ favorite spiritual advisor and occultist, Dr. Strange. Jr. But that would be a ‘reboot’ from the original, first released in Strange Tales #110 (July, 1963), conceived by Ditko and Lee. And though it features Dr. Strange’s first appearance, it is not an origin tale. The reader is unaware of who he is and what he’s capable of.
Due to Ditko’s skill in telling compelling horror stories within few pages, this one was no different – he manages to do it in only five.
It all begins with a man consumed by his own dreams, unable to rest in his own bed; he then seeks for professional help, the man whom he heard about in whispers… The one who “dabbles in dark magic”. Once at the Master of Black Magic’s home, the tortured visitor explains his sorrow. The good doctor agrees to help and seeks advise from the man who trained him – the ancient one. By entering the man’s dream realm in his astral form, Strange faces his foe – Nightmare (a character whose influence weighed heavily on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – both by concept and design – and Gaiman himself is a huge Ditko fan).
Soon, the man reveals the cause of his nightmares – his own consciousness, troubled by his foul deeds caused to others – cheating in business deals. He decides to shoot Strange down while in trance and confronting Nightmare; the Ancient one comes to aid, activating the Eye of Agamotto (unnamed until then) and making the man see the truth of his actions beyond himself and turn himself in.
The ‘rebooting’ of Nightmare on Bleecker Street takes place in the pages of Ultimate Spider-Man. With more pages and issues, the story slowly builds up just to its climax, just like a horror movie. In this version, a young Peter is the hapless Nightmare victim – unable to confront and cease the suffering in his own dreams. The Ultimate version of the Sorcerer Supreme is also a young man, son of the original Doctor Strange.
His origin was told in Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #12-13, a homage retelling of ASM Annual #2 (never understimate this one) with some darker twists, but the core elements are there: Xandu, The Wand of Watoomb, mind-wiping, weak-minded goons. Defintely worth its read – also due to Ted McKeever’s eerie and surrealistic art. The stuff of nightmares which fits perfectly into Doctor Strange adventures.
And why not a younger version of Doctor Strange? A young, flawed man very prone to make mistakes, far from fully mastering the mystic arts? After all, he’s also Steve Ditko’s creation. And if Peter parker was not a photographer, but a web-tech at the Daily Bugle in the Ultimate Universe, why couldn’t Stephen Strange Jr. be a famous fortune-teller/astrologist/spiritual advisor for celebrities?
During a fancy date at a restaurant in NY, Peter and MJ talk over how he came to cross paths with Dr. Strange. She knows his secret identity, and inquires him with huge interest. Peter tells her how he got assigned to interview him for the Daily Bugle, courtesy of JJJ; all he needed to do was to follow Ben Urich for this ‘fluff piece’.
Once in front of Strange Jr.’s abode, Ultimate Wong tells them he is not available. Urich leaves, Peter puts on his uniform and decides to investigate. From the window roof, he sees Wong doing something to an unconscious Strange; assuming Wong is harming him, he intervenes, with drastic results.
Over at the restaurant, as Peter describes what happened to MJ, he discovers in the worst way that the very conversation they’re having is a nightmare, when he’s grabbed by Uncle Ben and Gwen Stacy.
Back at the Sanctum Sanctorum, Strange Jr. wakes up only to find an unconscious Spider-Man. Wong explains what happened: while meditating, Stephen forgot to cast a spell of protection before starting it and made himself vulnerable and open to possessions. Strange succumbed to one; Wong notices it and tried to help him, when Ben Urich and Peter knocked on their door. When Spider-Man intervened, an entity took possession of him – by putting him into a dream-state, accessing his subconscious and forcing him to confront a distorted version of his reality where everyone he knows, loves and fought against is torturing him. The dead ones are alive, blaming him for his failure; and the living ones blame him for their imminent death, just because he knows them. Fault, guilt, dire consequences.
Waking up is not an option, and Strange Jr. must act fast to wake him up before (the) Nightmare takes over. Peter experiences the existence of dark magic and its heavy effects in his life.
This two-parter arc exemplifies how much the Bendis/Bagley team got the goods: they provide an in-depth look into Peter’s thoughts – from how a real teenager perceives and tries to figure out how adults function, and why do they act like they do. It doesn’t get more honest and raw than this. He’s angry at his superhero life after losing Gwen Stacy; he admits to himself that he’s too young to experience all of this as Spider-Man. Few writers can deliver such powerful psychological insights from characters, and Bendis is one of them.
Whereas Bagley’s style conveys so much emotional dynamic through his characters’ eyes, body language and movement – while making it all look fluid and alive; not one panel is left to waste. Like Ditko, Romita, Gil Kane, Ross Andru, John Romita Jr. and Ron Frenz before him, he is a true (Spider) visual storyteller.
Some horror movies end with personal tragedy. In this story, Peter confronts himself and loses the battle.
“FEVER” #1-3 (2010):
Simply put, Spidey and Strange’s most bizarre story ever published in the 21st century. It’s no wonder that when this 3-part story was released as a TPB, it also featured a reprint of ASM Annual#2, in order to state Brendan McCarthy‘s main source of inspiration for the story: “The Wondrous World of Doctor Strange!”, and Spider-Man’s connection to the supernatural. It was not printed as an OGN but it should have been one, even if draws inspiration from Ditko’s story.
Nevertheless, Fever has no shame in being one of greatest homages to the man’s work. A psychedelic visual trip, and the very first one that evokes a bizarre connection to Spidey’s mystical source of power in another dimension.
It all starts when Dr. Strange receives his long awaited package from ‘Atlantis Books’: Liber Infinitas – The Book of Eight; a.k.a. The Lost Journal of Albion Crawley – McCarthy’s (and Marvel’s) version of Aleister Crowley, famous English writer and occultist from the 19th century. He wonders if the book has been written by a spider, due to its symbols and weird language. Unbeknownst to Strange, the book is booby-trapped, and unleashes a dark magic wave stream in NY – a Webwaze, with its source located at another dimension.
Meanwhile, Spidey just finishes a short battle against the Vulture, who ends up webbed against a kitchen sink inside an apartment. The Webwaze comes out of the sinkhole, assuming the form of a small spider-demon with a funny hat that latches behind Vulture’s head; it takes control over him and sprays our hero with an ordinary insect pesticide. Spidey is rendered into a toxic shock and falls from the window and lands on the roof of Strange’s Sanctum Sanctorum. Dizzy and barely moving, he crawls inside the bathroom where moments later, Strange senses a dark presence at home, and finds Spider-Man unconscious in the bathtub, being held victim of a bigger (Arachnix) spider-demon that is abducting his soul.
The Arachnix flees with Spidey’s soul down the drain to another dimension – the realm of King Korozon, the Dark Lord of Spiders -, leaving his body in a state of ‘Sorcerer’s Fever’. Doctor Strange follows the Webwaze track in his astral form to rescue his friend – before he gets eaten.
From there onwards, the story unfolds unpredictably – even to Doctor Strange. Without revealing much, both characters come across bizarre elements never seen before in their titles: unhappy meals covered in tears; a deck of cards named Tarot of Tarantulas; a Yellow Submarine on a river that is also a road; peculiar cartoon characters with personality disorders; illogical-magical systems; chaotic energy. Superb storytelling with great art and hypnotizing colours.
Filled with elements from the arachnids, insects, Crowley’s occultism themes and easter eggs ranging from ASM Annual #2 (AGAIN), popular culture, rock music and even Dormammu, this story flawlessly depicts the wondrous world of Doctor Strange – and the mystical world of Spider-Man.
If Spider-Man were ever published under the DC/Vertigo imprint, or if Terry Gilliam wrote and directed a movie with Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, Fever would be it.
Another unmissable reading, featuring Ditko’s greatest creations and the ultimate homage to his visual style shown below:
What a strange, tangled trip.
NEW AVENGERS #27 (Vol.2 2012)
There are two paths.Meaning that, if a reader wishes to enjoy any of Marvel’s biggest summer events, one can either follow the entire saga only from the event’s core issues, or read the monthly titles presenting ramifications from the event.
But if the event and satellite issues are written by Brian Michael Bendis, it might be helpful to collect the perspective from both.
(Marvel’s) “Event fatigue” has its origin from the nineties, when every threat spawned from a dark secret originated from the X-Men’s past; mostly. Chris Claremont’s run for Marvel’s mutants was so important, to say the least, that the company’s editorial department has been trying to emulate or reproduce its impact, ever since his leave from the Uncanny X-Men – not an easy task. Especially because those international mutants were the established ‘flavour of the month’ for decades.
Meanwhile, The Amazing Spider-Man title (and character), though not being a core player of any Marvel event, his participation would always prove impactful to his life, such as the Black Costume in Secret Wars, the origin of Demogoblin and the new Carrion during Inferno, the great battles against Sentinels during The Onslaught saga, his great participation in issue #346 of The Uncanny X-Men during the Operation: Zero Tolerance event, until he joined The Avengers in Marvel’s new century.
From then onwards, Spider-Man became more connected to the Marvel Universe. His actions mattered, especially during the House of M, Dark Reign, and AvX events – he wasn’t only feeling their aftermaths, but being an integral part of them. His teammates would listen to his opinion based on his large experience.
And during the Avengers vs. X-Men event, his participation proved to be one of the best in the series, beautifully drawn by Mike Deodato Jr. In this tale (in NAV#27 vol.2) he is stationed with some Avengers in the mystical city of K’un-Lun – where Kung-Fu and The Immortal Iron Fist were born; a place of great earthly power.
Danny Rand (Iron Fist) tells Hope Summers about Fongji – the girl who long ago wielded both powers from the Immortal Iron Fist and The Phoenix Force. Scared that she might die or be totally lost when the moment comes, she’s in K’un Lun for her own protection and to train. Confused about not knowing her place in all of this, Yu-Ti takes Hope to the Scrying Vessel of Bo-Ling – just like Fongji before her. There, images are shown, and Yu-Ti sees that she is to be trained by The Spider.
Once more, the power that Peter Parker wields is seriously taken into account. Imagine the connection: the bearer of the cosmic Phoenix Force is to be trained by the earthly bearer of the Spider totemic force.
Regardless of how the event was critically received and analyzed, this single issue proved that Spider-Man’s essence is a force to be reckoned with – and that’s exactly what he teaches her about: the power of responsibility.
Spider-Man would not take long enough to test the mettle of his powers by taking the responsibility of covering for his teammates while being overpowered – and being beaten into pulp (in AvX#9) by two bearers of the Phonix Force: Colossus and his sister Magik.
Another great display of his altruism, despite how much painful that beating was.
- The ASM run conceived by J.Michael Straczynski, John Romita Jr. and Scott Hanna – being the phase that delves the deepest into Spider-Man’s totemic origin will be analyzed in future texts of this column. Besides being filled with new mystical elements and perspectives which changed the way we (and Peter) perceive Spider-Man’s powers, the run pays the ultimate homage to Ditko’s work; not to mention Dr. Strange’s frequent participations to introduce and explain concepts never examined before in Spider-Man’s mythos.
Even that one storyline involving Marvel’s version of Lucifer, a shot wounded Aunt, and a matrimonial union.
- An apology:
Spider-Man / Dr. Strange The Way to Dusty Death – by Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Michael Bair – couldn’t be found and read for this analysis.
Otherwise, this text alone would become Spider-Man’s Mystical Encyclopedia – The Digital Amateur Version.
Recently, Marvel has launched MARVEL LEGACY #1 – a special issue that, besides announcing the return of all its main titles to their original numbering, it also introduces the ultimate retrocontinuity concept in Marvel history: The Avengers of 1,000,000 BC.
The team members are Agamotto, Black Panter, Ghost Rider, Iron Fist, Odin, Starbrand and Phoenix. They are the living embodiments of Marvel’s most ancient and powerful forces to walk the Earth.
Just like the Phoenix force, Mjolnir, The Black Panther legacy, the Spirit of Vengeance, Starbrand and all the other ancient representations of power in the Marvelverse, it is disappointing not seeing the Spidertotem – a force as old as the planet, being analyzed and acknowledged in this text – not represented in this roster.
That addition alone would embolden Spider-Man’s nature to such an enormous level – that a deeper exploration of this idea would be mandatory. All the strange tales aforementioned in this text prove that.
Even Dark Mairi of The Shore, the old witch lady created by Charless Vess in his OGN Spirits of The Earth, could vouch for that.
With the proper approach, every idea can be executable. Because it would make sense. It could work. Maybe the best Spider totemic story is yet to come. JMS’ run only scratched that surface and Spiderverse focused on its antagonist side, not digging deep enough into what The Spider is and where it came from.
In conclusion, those stories were chosen not only for their fantastic depiction of outwordly adventures, but also to offer a further analysis of how the man behind the mask with amazing powers behaves and reacts when catapulted (accidentally or not) into unimaginable dimensions; and though he may not be in his natural territory, neither master mystical warfare, Doctor Strange is there to show how Peter Parker is capable to beat impossible odds and face the unconceivable with relentless will and sense of humor.
And all of them represent the many artists’ Love and respect to Steve Ditko’s work – whose work can’t be overstated enough; it influenced many artists and writers by breaking beyond new ground into the other realities, and showing what these amazing characters were capable of doing in the comic book format.
Here’s to the Man.